Tuesday, 8 January 2008

The Kite Runner

Since 1978, when communists took control of its government, Afghanistan has been among the poorest and most troubled nations in the world. While the media now provide regular reports on the war in Afghanistan, few people in the western world know much about its tortured history or about its people and cultures. One of the vital roles of filmmaking is to help put a human face on such people and cultures and tell us a bit of such histories. While this is usually achieved through documentaries or independent foreign films, a lavishly-produced Hollywood film will obviously reach a far-wider audience. If such a film is truly well-made, then much can be forgiven it (even a contrived, manipulative plot).

The Kite Runner is precisely this kind of film. Based on the bestselling novel by Khaled Hosseini, The Kite Runner begins with the friendship of two boys from different cultures and social classes in pre-communist Afghanistan (1978). The friendship ends dramatically when one of the boys (Amir) witnesses a brutal attack on the other (Hassan) and makes no attempt to intervene. Unable to handle the shame of his cowardice, Amir drives Hassan away. The story then follows the life of Amir, jumping ahead to 1988 in California and eventually to 2000 back in Afghanistan (a very different Afghanistan, as brilliantly depicted in the film), where Amir attempts to redeem the betrayal of his childhood.

In the wrong Hollywood hands, such a story, with recurring themes like death and child-rape, could have been either a very dark and violent tale or something overly sentimental. But under the sure direction of Marc Forster (who has made some excellent films, including Monster’s Ball, Finding Neverland and the under-appreciated Stranger Than Fiction), The Kite Runner becomes a perfectly-paced and perfectly-told story which elicits just the right level of emotion throughout. It also balances the darkness with just the right amount of light, partly achieved through the fascinating and beautifully-shot sport of kite-flying.

Sure, in some ways The Kite Runner is a superficial easy-to-watch Hollywood film with an implausible ending, but in most ways it rises well above the average Hollywood yarn. For one thing, its use of unknown actors and a foreign language give it an air of authenticity which is rare among Hollywood films. The acting is strong and natural, with particularly outstanding performances by the two boys playing Amir and Hassan (Zekeria Ebrahimi and Ahmad Khan Mahmidzada) and by Homayoun Ershadi as Amir’s father, Baba, and Shaun Toub as Baba’s friend. The natural acting makes it easier to achieve well-developed characters, another strength of this film.

We all do things as children that we regret, often for the rest of our lives. Too frequently, this results in self-hatred and in branding ourselves as cowards, liars, or just plain evil. This is unfair and untrue; after all, we were only children! The Kite Runner explores this subject with uncommon sympathy and softness. Parts of the ending might have been implausible, but at least the characters stayed true.

Intended or not, the film made me think that we in the west are all guilty of betraying Afghanistan and its people, of hiding while bullies did their work. Like Amir, we also need to find a path to redemption, but the violent path currently being followed in Afghanistan will never, in my opinion, lead to such redemption. I also saw no evidence of the film promoting such a violent course of action.

For all the reasons above, and aided, of course, by the breathtaking cinematography (China stands in for Afghanistan), The Kite Runner was quite simply the most beautiful film I saw in 2007 and ranks high among my favourite films of the year. It gets a full mug up of the finest brew. ****

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